By: Hedwig Lewis SJ
“Giving, thanksgiving and forgiving” are three kindred spirits in the heart. It is said that usually where one is found, all three exist. Developing each is a life-long process with the Grace of God. Forgiveness is the most complex quality that needs to be cultivated with prayer, persistence and practice.
The apostle Peter once put this question to Jesus. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus’ response is sharp and shocking: “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). What Jesus was asserting figuratively was that forgiveness is limitless, infinite, unconditional; it is not a numbers-game. Jesus’ followers are challenged to develop a proactive mindset of forgiveness. “Love your enemies, do good” (Lk 6:35).
Forgiveness is a matter of the heart, and an exclusively personal choice one makes freely, unconditionally, deliberately and definitively. It cannot be forced. It is not a once-and-for-all “act” but a process which begins with the decision to “let go” of resentment, frustration, anger, bitterness or revenge toward a incident, an attitude, or an utterance, or a behavior, of a person or group, that has created hurt-feelings in us. We forgive irrespective of whether they actually deserve forgiveness.
“Forgiveness stands on the truth that what happened to me was unfair, it is unfair, and it will always be unfair, but I will have a new response to it,” explains Dr Robert Enright (The Forgiving Life, 2012).
The process is complete when we truly experience peace of mind and heart. There is no “half-way” to forgiveness.
The key word is “response”. Forgiveness means seeing ourselves differently in relation to an event. There is a story about a young man would go regularly every morning to the street-corner newspaper stand, greet the vendor pleasantly “Good morning,” pick up his paper and while paying for it say “Thanks.” Never once did the vendor acknowledge the greeting; but continue to remain sullen-faced.
Curious bystanders once asked the young fellow why he returned to the same vendor daily when there were other stands nearby. The young man replied: “That’s how I am. I don’t allow somebody else’s behavior to determine how I’m going to act. It is my blessing to him for a good day.”
Forgiveness is a blessing! It helps us maintain our sanity in a crazy world. On the flip side, lack of forgiveness is a curse. Most people do not want to “let go” of their grudges because they feel that they will lose their power and control over others. This is an ego-problem. In his book Forgive for Good (2010) Fred Luskin points out that the reason why we hold on to hurts and grudges is because we take “a particular interaction or situation that was painful too personally, as if whatever happened, whatever was said or done, was done with the intention of hurting us.”
That could turn out to be a false premise because it may have accrued from the other person’s own insecurities, fear or pain, and we only circumstantially fell victim to it.
When we change our perspective, we learn to give others the benefit of the doubt. We may even echo the prayer of Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing (Lk 23.34)?
Once we develop a mindset of positive, proactive forgiveness, we will be able to take all “hurts” in our stride: brushing them off, letting go, and maintaining equanimity of mind and heart. Cultivating this mindset takes practice and foresight–because in our imperfect world, hurts are inevitable.
Take a cue from Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who was shot in the face by the Taliban for speaking out for the education of girls. In her Noble Prize acceptance speech to the United Nations in 2013, she said she knew her life was threatened long before the attack, and wondered what she would do if faced by a man with a gun.
She remembered thinking to herself: “If he comes to kill me, what do you do, Malala? I thought I would take my shoe and hit him. Then I thought, ‘if you hit a man with a shoe, you would be no different to the Talib. You must not treat others with that much cruelty and that much harshly.’”
“I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad the Prophet of Mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha… And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father.”
Only those who possess compassion can pray to Our Father with authentic hearts: “Forgive us… as we forgive others!”
We need to remind ourselves that we are sinners who have been forgiven, and can draw on that grace and power to exercise our unconditional, unlimited forgiveness over others, in a spirit of gratitude and generosity.
(Fr Hedwig Lewis, a Jesuit priest, is a former college professor and principal. He is an author of international repute, with over 40 psycho-spiritual and professional books to his credit, including the bestsellers At Home With God and Body Language: A Guide for Professionals. His books have fetched good reviews in many Church newspapers and periodicals. He resides in Ahmedabad, India. His website: http://joygift.tripod.com and email: firstname.lastname@example.org)